Reading the morning papers, I start humming the old Irving Berlin tune "Harlem On My Mind." I do so because Harlem is where Bill Clinton hangs out when he's in New York and doing the hard work of doing nothing much. I envision him reading the papers as I do and smiling: See? I wasn't so bad after all.
Buried under the headlines and between the lines is the rueful confession of the Bush administration that maybe -- just maybe -- Clinton was doing the right thing in the Middle East. He kept everyone talking.
George Bush was going to have none of that. His policy when it came to the Arab-Israeli mess was essentially to be the anti-Clinton. There would be no meetings at Camp David, the Wye Plantation, or some obscure air base. In fact, those meetings had done nothing but encourage the Palestinians to think that the pursuit of terrorism was the way to go. This thinking was contained in the Fleischer Doctrine.
Ari Fleischer is the president's press secretary and not the sort, on his own, to make policy, not to mention a whole doctrine. But on the last day of February, Fleischer told the press that the Clinton administration's insistence on taking such a large role in the Middle East was counterproductive.
"Actually, I think if you go back to when the violence began, you can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted," he said. This was because the Clinton administration had so raised expectations "that it turned into violence." By the afternoon, Fleischer had e-mailed a retraction. "No United States president, including Bill Clinton, is to blame for violence in the Middle East."
Excuse me for believing that Fleischer was merely repeating water-cooler wisdom in the West Wing. This, clearly, is what the Bushies believed. The proof of that is their absolute refusal-cum-reluctance to even approximate Clinton's involvement in the Middle East. Gen. Anthony Zinni was dispatched to the region, but he is 1) retired and 2) obscure.
In truth, no one can say what would have happened had the Bush administration followed the Clinton pattern of engagement. The Arab-Israeli dispute is complicated, intensely emotional, and downright durable. It's possible that Clinton did indeed get too engaged and was in too much of a hurry to add a Nobel Peace Prize to his honors. It's possible, maybe even probable, that Arafat was never going to accept any deal. His idea of a compromise is the whole ball of wax.
But it is the job, the obligation, and the duty of any American administration to do the hard, often fruitless work of the Middle East. It is the responsibility of any White House to keep the secretary of state frequently in the region, if only to keep the two sides from tearing each other apart. This is particularly true at the moment, because, as Yeats would have it, the center has not held. Foggy Bottom is the only center left.
It has taken the campaign against Iraq to get Dick Cheney on his airplane. As he has found out, though, the states of the region have a hard time supporting a war against a fellow Arab country when it is Israel that so preoccupies the minds of their people. First things first, they say. It could be that the administration finally is listening.
If so, it is high time Washington signaled that it is raising its commitment and profile in the Middle East -- and keeping it there for the long run. Otherwise, the broad alliance against Iraq will consist of maybe Britain, while the current mess in the Middle East -- atrocity after atrocity -- will continue. Maybe the Bushies ought to appoint a more high-powered, more experienced Middle East negotiator. I know. It'll never happen, but I can't help myself.
I've got Harlem on my mind.
Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His work frequently appears in the Flyer.